by Steve Bircher, Curator of Mammals/Carnivores
stlzoo magazine, September/October 2005

While the world's fastest land mammal may be racing toward extinction, the Saint Louis Zoo and its partners are working diligently to slow and, ultimately, reverse this process. Loss of habitat, poaching, competition with large predators and ranchers have taken a huge toll on the sleek and long-legged cheetah, Acinonyx jubatus, in the wild. The lack of genetic diversity in the global cheetah population, combined with the fact that cheetahs are difficult to breed in captivity, has only exacerbated this situation.

In 1974, the Zoo made a long-term commitment to the cheetah when it built the Cheetah Survival Center. More than 30 cheetah cubs were produced here. In addition, the center gained valuable information about cheetah captive management techniques and its biology.

The center was renovated in 2001 to become part of River's Edge. Here we have a large naturalistic habitat with three viewing areas, an off-display building and seven off-display holding yards.

Currently there are five cheetahs at River's Edge: four-year-old brothers Shanto and Sabi, plus three females, six-year-old Tugela, five-year-old Halala and four-year-old Queen. These cars are part of the Cheetah Species Survival Plan, a program managed by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association to maintain a genetic reserve of cheetahs in captivity, as the number of cheetahs in the wild continues to dwindle.

Today the center, which has been renamed the Center for Cheetah Conservation, is one of 12 conservation centers in the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute.

Currently there are fewer than 15,000 cheetahs remaining in Africa and less than 100 scattered individuals in Iran. In 2001, I attended the first Global Cheetah Action Plan in Pretoria, South Africa, where we addressed some of the threats facing cheetahs today. In conjunction with the IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group - South Africa, and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, there were 53 of us from 12 countries, including field researchers, veterinarians, wildlife officials and zoo managers.

We identified and prioritized the most important issues affecting cheetahs today and laid the groundwork for a comprehensive protection plan.

Participants identified the most critical needs: a census of cheetahs in Africa and Iran, cheetah disease and health, protection of cheetahs outside protected areas, coordinating in situ and ex situ conservation efforts, education and communication, and viability of the captive population. The Saint Louis Zoo has partially funded and participated in four international cheetah meetings and workshops since then.

In 2004 we established the Center for Cheetah Conservation as part of the WildCare Institute. Now we can expand our conservation efforts in the wild.

Currently, our Center for Cheetah Conservation is supporting efforts in two areas of Africa. Dr. Sarah Durant, director of the Serengeti Cheetah Project, is coordinating a census and health survey of cheetahs in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. One of her goals has been to evaluate and implement a reliable and repeatable census technique for cheetahs. Her census techniques include:

  • visual counts and identification (by means of tagging them)
  • developing a cheetah atlas, using questionnaires of people who have spotted cheetahs and a GIS satellite database
  • spoor counting (noting feces, tracks or markings), using local trackers and dogs trained to locate cheetah scat, or droppings
  • camera traps, which photograph automatically as a cheetah triggers an infrared sensor
  • cheetah photo surveys (from government and private sectors, including tourists, tour companies, researchers, wildlife professionals).

The Zoo has made a three-year commitment of financial support to Maurus Msuha, who is Director of the Tanzania Carnivore Monitoring Project. The focus of his doctoral study at Cambridge is human carnivore conflict in Tanzania. Based at the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute in Arusha, he is gathering information on carnivores across the country through a network of volunteer photo contributors. Participants send in locations of cheetah sightings from all across Tanzania for use in the Cheetah Watch, as well as images of wild dogs for the Wild Dog Watch.

Also, the Tanzania Carnivore Monitoring Project trains local wildlife professionals in appropriate scientific methods, bringing in external expertise where necessary. The project produces a quarterly newsletter, Web site, posters and stickers, and has been featured on national TV and radio. Ultimately, success of the project will depend on the goodwill and support of people within Tanzania. Funding for both Tanzanian projects is made possible by a partnership among the Saint Louis Zoo, the UK Darwin Initiative Scheme, Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zoological Society of London.

The second area of Saint Louis Zoo's conservation focus is Algeria. Early last year the Center for Cheetah Conservation combined efforts with the WildCare Institute's Center for Conservation of Sahelo-Saharan Wildlife Recovery to fund a survey of critical antelope and cheetah habitats in Algeria. Overuse, sustained drought and insufficient resources for conservation have pushed many deserts to the brink of destruction. At a time when international conservation organizations are increasingly focusing on biodiversity hotspots, the wildlife of the hottest spots of them all - the world's deserts - are largely ignored even as the threat to their existence is increasing.

In addition to developing baseline estimates of relative abundance of wildlife, the Algerian project will provide practical, on-site training to local counterparts in wildlife survey and censusing techniques and data acquisition, and ultimately, disseminate results to Algerian officials, aid agencies, conservation NGOs and other stakeholders to aid in the development of effective conservation strategies. Saint Louis Zoo collaborators include Smithsonian's Center for Research and Conservation, Cheetah Conservation Fund-Namibia, Zoological Society of London and the Flemish Nature Conservation Department.

The Center for Cheetah Conservation will continue to support the Cheetah Species Survival Plan and the Global Cheetah Action Plan. We will also continue to educate the public about cheetah conservation, support sound scientific research and develop programs in Africa so that the cheetah's race will be one of survival, not extinction.